The Michaelmas Term got off to a classical start
this week with Shakespeare's
from Cosmic Arts. In addition to the gender-blind casting – almost the
norm in Oxford these days – which gave us an equal male/female representation on
stage (though still a male preponderance in the crew), director Benjamin Ashton
zoomed us away from the Forum and Seven Hills of Rome and forward to contemporary
Washington DC. Not content with that, he has demoted Julius Caesar to
Vice-President and promoted Mark Antony to President. The purpose, so he told me,
was to boost its relevance and 'transport the audience into a
familiar world with unfamiliar circumstances'. It's agreeable to experience
this degree of ambition even if I had the feeling that this concentration on the
strategic vision had occasionally led to just a little shortfall in attention
to the basic tactical elements of the production.
We were greeted by an oblong playing space with audience seating to two sides; the Washington effect was conveyed by a couple of flags – the Stars and Stripes plus the President's official flag – and the Oval Office suggested by a chair and a table (inappropriate junk shop tables appear so often in student dramas that I'm beginning to think there must be a University by-law specifying their presence). So far, so minimalist. My companions at the play, Markus and Lucy, both noted that this acting space shape meant we were often obtaining a side-on view of the actors, and certainly the voice projection and consequent audibility problems that cropped up intermittently in respect of a number of the cast were not helped by this awkward staging.
The opening scene was somewhat marred by a tendency to mumbled dialogue, and soon the soothsayer's catalytic warning: "Beware the Ides of March!" was all but drowned out by over-loud, cheesy music from the four-piece band (elsewhere performing nicely, and not over-used). Later when Caesar chides the soothsayer "The Ides of March are come," and receives the reply "Ay, Caesar, but not gone" the tone was throwaway rather than ominous. Nor was there much feeling of the action taking place within a big city – whether Rome or Washington DC – since, apart from a couple of fleeting off-stage crowd outbursts, background sound was notably absent until Mark Antony's funeral eulogy in Act III scene 2. Here, though, the persistent rumbustiousness of the street crowd was most effective.
Jonny Wiles' Brutus maintained a surprisingly low profile throughout, from his discussion of the nature of honour in Act I to his musing over his received letter in Act II “Brutus, thou sleep’st. Awake, and see thyself”, and even in death at the end, slipping away almost apologetically. In the scene with his wife Portia, he was upstaged by the excellent Chloé Delanney, simultaneously fiery and touching, and both as Portia and Dardanius all alive even when still. Benedict Turvill also caught the eye and ear, boasting a pleasingly twangy S. Carolina accent as well as a ringing delivery. Jennifer Hurd's Caesar, a tall and potentially commanding figure, rather struggled to make an impact. Of course Caesar disappears, all but in spectral form, from the play by the halfway point, and is hardly the focal point of the drama despite his name being on the tin. But I'd have liked a bit more chagrin, if not agony of betrayal, for the "Et tu, Brute?" as the final thrust goes home, so as to back up verbally what was the satisfyingly gory mis en scène of the killing. Tom Ames' Antony looked the part of a US president, sleek and photogenic, and after a slow start he built up a fine incremental momentum in his famous oration over Caesar's corpse. Both Amelia Gabriel as Cassius and Max Cadman (last seen by me as a first-class Prince Hal) in a trio of roles showed flashes of intensity and also demonstrated decent technique for Shakespeare's blank verse - neither attribute quite as widespread among the rest of the cast as one might perhaps have wished.
While this was not a production of vintage quality, were the issues of energy and vocal delivery to be addressed for subsequent performances, I'm sure it would become a worthy addition to the OUDS Shakespeare canon.